Exclusive Interview: DJ Shadow on New Album Plans, The Shifting Tides of EDM Culture and More
Josh Davis is coming back to center. In the past year, the turntable wizard with a kaleidoscope sound palette known as DJ Shadow has teamed with Cut Chemist for the wildly celebrated Renegades of Rhythm tour, a vinyl-only tour honoring Afrika Bambaataa’s influence on hip-hop’s beginnings. He’s also kicked off a revitalized sense of mystery in music with by teaming with Santa Cruz up-and-comer G Jones on a (formerly) secret project known as Nite School Klik, delivering some badass bass-heavy dynamic production work through the duo’s debut EP. Along the way, he’s seen the rise of his own imprint Liquid Amber.
His work has resonated with a wide spectrum of artists, influencing hip-hop beat designs and making spacebar DJs shit themselves with insecurity and hug their silly-ass cartoon bass buttons for dear life. But with his involvement in such a wide range of projects, it’s been three-plus years since Davis has played any direct Shadow material live, and he knows his fans are antsy for the next stage of evolution from the man who’s repeatedly redefined the true artistry standard over the past two decades.
The great news? DJ Shadow has begun work in earnest on a new album, and he’s enthusiastically committed to the project. We caught up with the legend recently to touch base on the man behind the Shadow, how his perspective and influence has shifted in EDM culture, the next steps for Liquid Amber, the value of music in a distraction-driven culture of attention-deficit normality and more.
Congratulations on one hell of a year so far – the Liquid Amber label has taken off, and Nite School Klik has hit with a revitalized sense of mystery that’s entirely absent in today’s all-access world. Now that the momentum you’ve built for it has its own kinetic energy, what’s your perspective on it all?
I’ve been a part of starting a label, with Solesides which became Quannum, which was a rap collective. That was a part of learning all about learning how to get records pressed up, and how to get lines of credit and all the things that came along with running a label at the time – twenty years ago. But this is the first time I’ve done it since then, and it’s just a completely different world. It’s nice to see that there’s some momentum behind it now. G Jones is the man. I first found his music in the process of just looking for music to put into my sets, starting a few years ago. One of the pivotal points for me was discovering the music on this label called Saturate!, out of Germany.
How did Saturate! connect to a new inspiration for you?
The first thing that I started getting into was a Doshy remix of a Bleep Bloop song. And just from seeing what else they’d put out, I found some G Jones remixes – and when I finally met Aaron (Triggs) out at a festival, I came offstage and he was like ‘Hey you just played my music,’ and introduced himself.
I’d thought all the artists on Saturate! were German, because that’s where the label’s based, but they’re located everywhere. And both of them actually live within a hundred miles of me, both G and Aaron (Bleep Bloop). So I started working on some music with Bleep Bloop, and he’s really good friends with G, so I asked G to open up for me in 2013 in Seattle, and that was the first time I met him in person. All along we’ve been looking for ways to work on something, and finally last Christmas I just went over to his place in Santa Cruz and we just started vibing on some tracks.
We talked about doing it as an alias, because it might be interesting to people to do it on a left-field group name like Nite School Klik rather than “Shadow and G Jones” or whatever. And also we talked about how it would give us the opportunity to do things that would be slightly different. We didn’t want to come together and make music that sounds only like me or only like G, but rather something different from what each of us would do.
That’s highly appreciated from a fan’s point of view. I think that applies to any genre, if an artist who’s made a name for themselves can break off and do something new, even anonymously, that’s a rare treat. That doesn’t really happen anymore with the internet, being the other edge of the all-access sword. So where do things go next?
G and I were actually just talking this morning about when he and I are going to hook up to do some more music. And then concurrent to that, I’m going to be working on music all year for whatever my next album ends up being. But he’s super busy these days doing shows and a lot of music production, and I anticipate being busy the rest of the year, but we’ll push all that aside and make something happen, for sure.
Excellent. Any plans to release any live sets, whether it be the Renegades tour or anything like your Handmade series a while back?
I think as far as any vintage or vault stuff, I think it’s appropriate in this day and age to just put it up. Just let people enjoy it. So I always have that kind of stuff in the back of my mind every time I come downstairs here to work. I know I have all these recordings, and I’m constantly trying to archive DAT tapes and old CD-Rs and stuff I find in storage, because I know there’s stuff that people probably want to hear. And even some video assets and stuff like that… but it’s just a matter of time, like you were saying. It’s all a matter of time management.
Does it feel a little indulgent sometimes, or is going through it all like a victory lap?
Kind of, because a lot of sets… I’m not sure if I recorded twice on one tour, generally speaking, it’s not like I’m coming up with a new 90 minute set every night. When you put a 90 minute set together and you tour with it, that’s kind of the program. You present it in this city, and you’re going to the next city and you’re playing to a new audience, so you play the same thing. So I have a recording here of L.A. and one of San Diego. Does it really matter if people have both? So yeah in that respect I try not to overload people.
Someone who’s gone to any number of stops on the tour probably doesn’t need their specific show if there’s a certain core uniformity to it, as long as there’s something they can connect back to their own experience, one representative recording.
I’ve actually had quite a bit of bad luck recently, where we were getting ready to do a DVD of the Shadosphere show which ran from 2010-2012. But to make a long story short, the person I hired to film and edit the movie, his hard drives blew up and he didn’t have a backup. So we put all this work into it, and I drove down to L.A. to finish the project. We set up in my hotel room with the screen and everything, to make the final edits… and at one point his face kind of blanched, and he was messing with stuff for a while, and I asked what was going on. He was like ‘wait, just gimme ten minutes.’ Then he asked me to leave for half an hour, and I came back and he broke the news to me that apparently just at that moment we lost the entire project.
Obviously that’s ridiculous because everyone knows to back stuff up, but that actually happened. Then something similar with the tour before, actually, where I was out in 2006 with nine screens behind me in a tic-tac-toe formation. We had some really cool visual stuff there. That project… it’ll come out at some point, but it was hard to edit. The good news is that we are gonna do a really unique release for the Renegades tour. That project is done, edited and is being manufactured. But I’m gonna warn you, it’s an unusual release.
I think unusual is savored and cherished these days. Do you have any space to take the Nite School Klik project on the road?
As of 2012, I thought I was gonna be off the road for quite a while (laughs). I was asked to do a set for the Low End Theory guys, and it was something like I never felt that I had bandwidth to deal with or do. I didn’t want to do it as me as an artist… it occurred to me that I hadn’t just done a regular DJ set with other people’s music that’s current that I like since the late ‘90s. Around that time, when I would go out and play, people were really expecting me to represent the music that I would put out on record. They were treating me almost like a band, where if you want to see your favorite band play, you’re expecting to hear those favorite songs. So I tried to stay true to that, but I was having so much fun putting the Low End set together, and it went so well that on the basis of that offers just kept coming in.
I ended up doing a festival in Sacramento, and that led to other things, and other people wanting to book this kind of new look. I was playing contemporary bass stuff, post-dubstep stuff and pre-trap stuff. More headsy, beat-driven stuff. That ended up taking me out on the road for another two years. I was constantly changing the set every month, adding new stuff… because I wanted the set to be ultra up to the moment. A lot of unreleased stuff, a lot of stuff that was just emerging. That all kept me busy right up until the Renegades tour.
So you’ve been going nonstop, is what you’re saying…
Yeah, it’s been intense.
So you’re looking to lay back a little bit?
From the road, yeah. From the rest of this year. In the blink of an eye, by the time I hit the road again it’ll have been four years since I’ve done any Shadow material live. Time goes quickly, and four years is a long time.
Especially with family, going through their own transitions and your own personal experiences. As you move through life, outside the Shadow moniker, does it give you a different perspective on the identity of DJ Shadow, and how that factors into the rise of EDM culture? Especially the past 3-5 years.
It’s kind of interesting, because I feel like I have both the curse and the benefit of not fitting comfortably into any one genre. I’m kind of a square peg. I grew up on rap music and hip-hop culture, and that’s always at the forefront of my mind when I sit down to make music. But there’s no doubt that a lot of the music I make… you can’t say it sounds like hip-hop. To some people, there’s a rock element that people latch on to – and as a result, that led me to open for Radiohead on their ’97 tour. All these opportunities in various spaces, and as genres come and go, different people come out of the woodwork and cite me as an influence, which leads to a resurgence of interest in things that I’ve done.
Even here in the Bay area, people who know nothing else about me know about this Hyphy track that I did with Geek the Sneak and Turftalk. So that’s the good thing about having my musical tastes that broad and trying to constantly do new things – it gives you different contexts for people to discover your music. And in doing so, inevitably somebody will find a track that they just can’t understand how I would’ve done that track. They don’t understand it, they don’t like it… and then inevitably there’s also stuff that they’re surprised to like. To me it all makes sense but I don’t expect everybody to pick up every thread.